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Russia Qualifies for World Cup First Time Since 1994 - 2002-05-24

After missing the World Cup in France four years ago, Russia's national team hopes to reassert itself in this year's tournament in South Korea and Japan. Coach Oleg Romantsev's team probably has one of the weakest first round groups, but cannot take a berth in the second round for granted.

Defense was the key to Russia's qualifying campaign, and Russia is in the World Cup for the first time since 1994. Coach Oleg Romantsev has chosen a solid squad that includes few standouts, but does feature some of the best his country has to offer.

Russia lost to Belarus, 5-4, on penalties May 17 and 6-5 to Yugoslavia on penalties May 20. But International football commentator Derek Rae says the Russians might have some surprises in store for their World Cup Group-H opponents, Tunisia, Belgium and Japan.

"They have some good young players at the club level, whom we have seen come through in the past few years, especially the Spartak Moscow players. I mean, I suppose that Russia will feel it is between them - Belgium and Japan - for the two places [in the second round] - no disrespect intended to Tunisia - and I would think that there is a chance that they might make it based on their experience," he said.

One of those Spartak Moscow players on the Russian squad is striker Vladimir Beschastnykh, who accounted for half the team's goals in qualifying. Also on the team are striker Victor Onopko of Spain's Oviedo, defender Yuri Nikiforov of PSV Eindhoven and Valery Karpin of Celta Vigo. Derek Rae says the Russians have been unfairly dismissed before the World Cup even begins.

"They were very disappointed not to be at (the last World Cup in) France [in] 1998. And I think that, with some of the young players coming through to support, this is a fairly useful side and one that gets unfairly overlooked," Mr. Rae said.

Russia opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia June fifth in Kobe, Japan. The Russians then play co-host Japan June ninth in Yokohama and finish the first round June 14th against Belgium.